Bob Hass of all people, 1980s Bob Hass, writes about Rilke and I'm jarred.
I don’t think Rilke ever made a plainer statement of what he wanted art to be: cessation of desire; a place where our inner emptiness stops generating that need for things which mutilates the world and turns it into badly handled objects, where it becomes instead a pure, active, becalmed absence.... There is a personal subtext here, of course: Rilke’s jealousy of Otto Modersohn. (How could you have married that man?) And a deeper and more troubling one than that. He has tried to imagine himself inside a woman’s body because of his own identification with what is female.
This needs looking at. It is a famous fact of Rilke’s childhood in that apartment in Prague that his mother, having lost a baby girl in the year before his birth, raised her baby son as a girl. She gave him a first name, René, which was sexually ambiguous (he changed it to Rainer after meeting Lou Andreas-Salomé), dressed him in beautifully feminine clothes, and called him, in coy games they played, “Miss.” These practices ended when he went to school—the latter part of his schooling occurred at a particularly brutal military academy of his father’s choosing. Far back in Rilke’s childhood—and farther back than that, in his mother’s unconscious wishes—there is a perfect little girl, brought into this world to replace a dead one.
Almost all of Rilke’s close friends were women. He was deeply sympathetic to the conflict which the claims of art and family caused in a woman’s life. When those social claims seemed to kill Paula Becker, it confirmed his belief that life was the enemy of art, that sexuality and the world were the enemies of eros and eternity.... It would be wrong to conclude from this, as some readers have, that Rilke was simply narcissistic, if we mean by that a person who looks lovingly into the shallow pool of himself. He was, if anything, androgynous. The term has come to stand for our earliest bi- or pan-sexuality, and this is not quite what I mean. Androgyny is the pull inward, the erotic pull of the other we sense buried in the self. Psychoanalysis speaks of the primary narcissism of infants, but in the sense in which we usually use that term, only an adult can be narcissistic. Rilke—partly because of that girl his mother had located at the center of his psychic life—was always drawn, first of all and finally, to the mysterious fact of his own existence. His own being was otherness to him. It compelled him in the way that sexual otherness compels lovers.
I think this is why, in “Requiem” and the Elegies, he has a (for me tiresome) reverence for unrequited love and writes about sexual love as if those given over to it were saints of a mistaken religion.... No one has ever composed a more eloquent indictment of fucking: if it is so great, why hasn’t it catapulted all the dead directly into heaven, why is the world still haunted by the ghosts of so much unsatisfied desire?
There are a few things here. To start with, of course it’s the etiology game; we love our origin stories, and Hass really seems to believe that Rilke’s earliest environment broke him in the same way that, if you like, I was born broken. Which flows into the next thing: are they really the same? Is it possible to subsume the two cases under a single concept, and if so, would it be of any use? Would it help with the ghosts?
Neither the origin story nor the terminology is all that interesting, but I can’t deny what’s in the poems. Sometimes the phrase does fall right off the page and sit there, true as anything. The first time I read the Fire Sermon and couldn’t say if it was everyone’s world, only that it was mine.
Getting vatic all the time is of course a symptom. For Rilke and for me.
All this pathology is productive of beauty, but it’s best gotten beyond at some point, in the interest of health and human life: so thinks Hass, and even takes a brave stand in favor of sexual congress, which might be the only thing he and Robert Glück would agree on. He doesn’t want to write a case history (Rilke’s art, he says, saves him from that fate), but he can’t help reading the poems from outside, with a botanist’s eye. Consider this strangely formed flower.
Seen from within the flower is a fire. I can write that; I can write that one sits in it, year in year out, and is not consumed. Again, is it helpful? Does it lay the ghosts?